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Why Bollywood and democracy are vital for India’s African safari

editorials Updated: Oct 26, 2015 19:35 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times
India-Africa Summit

An African delegate talks on the phone as he arrives for the third India–Africa Forum Summit at the Indira Gandhi stadium in New Delhi.(AFP)

As leaders from as many as 54 African countries descend on New Delhi this week for the India-Africa Forum Summit, it is time to recall an old Hindi film song that lingers on Indian minds: “Woh tere pyar ka gham/Ik bahana tha sanam”.

That song of yearning from the 1970 film, “My Love” was shot on the streets of Nairobi, as actor Shashi Kapoor marked a screen heartbreak with lady love Sharmila Tagore. It was symbolic perhaps of the drift that India and the former Dark Continent. More recently, in 2012, Ms Tagore’s son Saif Ali Khan played a James Bond rip-off as a RAW agent in “Agent Vinod,” partly shot in Morocco and South Africa, signalling a confident, energetic new India.

Between these films spread 42 years apart falls the chequered history of Indo-African relations, which is now rich in ambition but daunting in challenge for India as giant neighbour China, with stronger economic muscle, engages the African continent. India, with its own choking infrastructure and fragile industry, it seems, was early to the game in Africa but late to the party.

Last week China conferred its own “alternative Nobel” prize, the Confucius prize, to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in a symbolic new hug to Africa. It is the continent’s biggest trading partner with bilateral exchange estimated at $200 billion. More than one million Chinese, including businessmen and workers have moved to live in Africa over the past decade, causing some social frictions with locals reminiscent of what expatriate Indians went through in Uganda, from where dictator Idi Amin threw Indian traders out after seizing power in 1971.

Read: India hosts biggest Africa summit; plays catchup with China

Indian trade with Africa, at $ 72 billion, is well behind China’s. True, companies such as Videocon, Bharti Enterprises and state-run ONGC have made significant achievements in Africa as latter-day investors in sectors such as oil and gas and telecoms but China, splurging abroad as it tries to prop up domestic growth, has an edge.

For India, the sweetener to better trade may lie in its long-past links. India was a leader among post-colonial societies, showing the way for newly independent African states. It stood by Nelson Mandela for decades as he fought racial segregation in South Africa. India also stood up for democracy in Nigeria in the Commonwealth movement, somewhat tangential to its own Non-Aligned Movement’s principle of letting nations decide their own internal matters.

In that sense, the democratically inclined sections of Africa may lean more towards India than China. Rulers like Mugabe, who has been accused of authoritarianism and human rights abuses, may find it easier to snuggle up to Beijing.

India is now not a struggling post-colonial nation but an emerging economy of the BRICS group with ambitions to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member.

Africa is also not a continent of starving millions but one where democracy, economic growth, oil and mineral wealth and liberalization are ushering in new opportunities. More than half of African nations have per-capita incomes higher than India

Which should bring us to 2002, when Indo-Swedish pop group Bombay Vikings decided to offer the old tune from “My Love” in a remix, called “Tera Mera Pyaar Sanam” – and the new generation found an old connect in the breezy hit that is symbolic of the new equation between Africa and India.

In January this year, India’s high commissioner in Nigeria announced that Nollywood – that country’s film industry -- will be assisted by Bollywood in producing movies. Nollywood, notably, is smaller than India’s film world (but bigger than that of the US in terms of number of films made annually) and could do with technical help.

Bollywood movies are popular across Africa for decades. Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini are household names in many parts. Akon, who sings in Hindi, is Senegalese – and is a friend of Shah Rukh. Mory Kante, the Guinean-born world music singer, was the one whose “Tama Tama” inspired the Bachchan hit, “Jumma Chumma”.

If India is to regain a magic it lost when it was a beacon for African nations emerging from the colonial yoke in the 1960s and 1970s, it must build on its famous “soft power” – and Bollywood and its own love of democracy and pluralism may yet provide a cultural advantage on which trust can be built for stronger trade ties.